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Experiencing a Jazz Jam Session

Jam sessions have a long history in the jazz scene and have played an integral role in the development of jazz musicians and styles.  This year, 20 musicians joined JazzArts Charlotte at our community-wide Jazz Jam Session to celebrate and demonstrate for June’s Make Music Day.

Make Music Day, June 21st, is an international day of free music activities across over 1000 cities. Completely different from a typical music festival, Make Music Day is intended to welcome anyone who wants to take part. Every kind of musician — young and old, amateur and professional, of every musical persuasion — is encouraged to share their music with friends, neighbors, and strangers.  A jazz jam session was a perfect fit for this outflowing of community and collaboration.

The “Jazz Jam” event attracted over 50 attendees, who got the opportunity to experience this traditional format of open, music-making unique to  jazz.  Musicians filtered in one by one, bringing in their “ax” (the insider’s term for their instrument) and approaching the host and JazzArts Artistic Director, Ocie Davis, with their desire to jump on stage.  After the house band kicked off the music, Ocie ensured each musician had their turn to “call” a tune and play.  Together, we enjoyed an everchanging mix of musicians, the improvisation and spontaneity typical of the environment, and a variety of jazz genres.

Jam sessions are an integral part of jazz. The format developed in the 1920s as black and white musicians sought opportunities to share their music despite the political climate of the time.   Late in the evening, after musicians finished their regular (segregated) gigs, they gathered at places like Minton’s Playhouse to explore the music more freely.  Minton’s Playhouse hosted infamous players like Thelonious Monk, Bus Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, who all played a role in the development of bebop.

According to Curtis Davenport, our resident encyclopedia of jazz, there are also infamous jam sessions that pitted skill against skill,  “like the modern rap battle…”  Others were intended for professional musicians only, recording an improvised session straight through and releasing that as an album to the public. Verve Records often supported these as a means to create new music outside the confines of the mass audience.  LISTENING: Charlie Parker Jam Session and Michael Brecker & Chick Corea “Confirmation” are examples of what came from that free-flowing environment.

Today, too, experienced musicians seek opportunities, outside a performance setting, to stretch their skills.  “A jam session offers me the chance to meet new musicians and have a shared musical experience using the standard jazz repertoire. It’s a way to continue the music traditions of the past and create new ones,” expresses David Lail, veteran jazz saxophonist who participated this past month.

It’s a valuable part of the jazz culture to teach and to learn interactively.  Young musicians are also welcome to cut their teeth on the bandstand, alongside the encouragement of their experienced mentors.   Ricardo Forges, a JazzArts Ensemble student who participated in the recent jam session says “I don’t have a lot of jazz experience.  I just started getting serious about playing outside the house this summer… Performing in public is what I need to learn and to get over nerves.”

The very nature of jazz – encouraging diversity, improvisation and the exchange of listening and sharing ideas – makes a jam session format the perfect breeding ground for musician and music.  That is as true today as in the beginning.


For those of you who don’t play, these local environments are a great way to support the development of budding musicians in our community. It’s an integral part to their musical development. For those of you who play, seek out a jam session, bring your “ax” and give it a go!  For one such opportunity, check out Not Just Coffee at 1026 Jay Street, July 16th for a monthly Jazz Jam organized by drummer Tim Scott Jr.

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